Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Monday, November 29, 2021
Christmas Is Coming!
Friday, November 26, 2021
Wednesday, November 24, 2021
Sunday, November 21, 2021
Saturday, November 20, 2021
Friday, November 19, 2021
The Ayes of Nancy Pearl
“It does seem so pleasant to talk with an old acquaintance that knows what you know."
-- Sarah Orne Jewett, from The Country of the Pointed Firs
Don't know about you, but I'm a little tired of reading people's eyes by now. Turns out I'm not great at this, or put it another way, while eyes may "speak the same language everywhere" as George Herbert said, some of them don't seem to have much to say. All we are going to get for the foreseeable, but as someone working in retail, I do wish they'd speak up. There can be a lot of blank stares, foggy glasses, shy people already disinclined to eye-contact, all something of a problem in yet another season of masks and winter headgear. I mean maybe if one were to lock eyes, as in some fabulous movie close-ups between Paul Henreid and Bette Davis, but there one had help from that swelling Max Steiner score to communicate, you know, undying love and suffering, etc. It seems even anger needs rather more than a knotted brow. Could be a friendly nod or a curt dismissal. That look could be quizzical, or cretinous or aimed elsewhere. Asking for help finding a book for Aunt Joan who likes thrillers with serial killers, or this person staring at me is a serial killer -- how would one know?!
I miss faces, smiles, even chins. (Who knew we could miss a chin?)
Last week a gentleman at the cash register congratulated me on the bookstore "getting back to normal." I took his meaning and I thanked him, but... no. Every day now does bring back a bit more of what life was like before the pandemic. The bookstore is looking good and business is better, even if our hours are still limited, the mask mandate remains in place, etc. There is a growing optimism to which I am myself not immune. As always, books help. It is good to see old friends, familiar faces, loyal customers returning. But, truth be told, I still wish I saw more of Nancy Pearl.
Time was Nancy went for walks; long, vigorous walks of the kind recommended by doctors and in television ads for ladies' sneakers and supplemental Medicare insurance. Our Ms. Pearl would stop by the bookstore to buy a newspaper, sip her coffee -- presumably her reward for the long walk -- and, as they say back home, maybe shoot the breeze with whatever bookseller was to hand. (They don't always say "breeze" back home, but you know what I mean.) As I lived largely on the sales floor in those days, I was often the lucky fellow who got to hang out for a few minutes with America's Favorite Librarian. Now, if you don't know who Nancy Pearl is I can't imagine why you would be reading this, but if you were to look her up you would see that she is indeed a former librarian, a teacher, lecturer, writer, novelist, reviewer, television and radio presenter, an action-figure, and A National Treasure. Not convinced? Well, she is also the most recent recipient of the National Book Award's Literarian Award for "outstanding service to the American literary community." In other words, this little lady is a very big deal in the book world and where have you been?!
A decade ago I wrote a piece called Why Nancy Pearl Matters. Therein I tried to explain to the uninitiated why my friend was an important person to know. And we were friends by then. For all of her many achievements and despite my relative unimportance in the great scheme of things, we get along fine. From the day I met her I just thought she was one of the most charming humans I'd ever encountered in a bookstore and she seemed to like me okay too. Yes, she's a macher, but she's also a mensch, and frankly a dear. Such a person doesn't need my endorsement obviously, what with the awards and the bestselling books and the rest. (Herewith my congratulations to be added to the general applause.) Nonetheless I offer a personal note of an entirely selfish character:
I miss her sweet mug. I really do.
When I saw her all the time we talked about books, obviously. I read what she read sometimes, but more often not and we'd talk about that. I read books she recommended to me and I avoided books she wasn't glad of. We had books in common, loved and unloved. We talked about the news now and then as how can one not? And we talked about personal things too now and again, and topics of broader interest. We described our own moods which were not always the best and sympathized in an unsticky way like grown ups who happen to like each other but don't live in each other's pockets. Nice, and a model may I say of how to feel for someone without either gloating or being intrusive. So she's not always cheerful? Fine. Neither am I no. Neither is anyone else who isn't either drunk, feeble-minded, or heavily medicated. Sometimes we'd crow together, sometimes it was nothing but the blues. Sometimes we'd just nod. Maybe sometimes she didn't feel much like talking. That is the thing about this otherwise exceptional person, I liked her even when she didn't feel much like being A National Treasure.
Then the world closed, and I was sent home for more than a year, and presumably Ms. Pearl did not get out so much. It happened. Nothing to do with us. since I've been back at the bookstore I saw her once, just long enough for one of those rather tentative we-are-both-vaccinated hugs. It was busy that day, she was with her granddaughter. It was good to see what I could see of her.
For me, things won't be back to normal again until I get to see Nancy Pearl get her newspaper. We don't have to talk. Her nod I would understand. That to me would be something like what I miss from the before now. As a friend, even just a bookstore-in-the-mornings friend, I am ridiculously proud of her, now more than ever. The woman has done more for literacy and libraries and books than any ten other people more famous even than her. She has empowered generations of young men and women to write, read, become librarians, become better. I am the very definition of an old dog and yet she has without trying taught me a great deal, and not just because I finally read that book by Merle Miller she kept telling me for years I had to read. Not to be overly familiar or to tell tales out of school, but Nancy Pearl has taught me to get on with it, whatever it happens to be, even when the getting on seems hardly worth the getting up in the morning. If that sounds suspiciously like an affirmation, I can only apologize. That is not the sort of thing with which either of us has much to do. Gossip we like. Grousing is good. But for all that, here she'd come yet again after her walk: coffee, newspaper, maybe lunch with a protegee or a colleague or friend. On a Thursday she'd probably be here to tape an interview for her television program. Maybe she was headed to the public radio station up the street to record a new books segment. Maybe she was just back from the back of beyond -- where she went a lot these past few years, lecturing hither and yon. She gets around, does Nancy. (When the Gods allow nowadays, but hopefully again soon.) Didn't much matter why and it wouldn't if I were to see her tomorrow. She reads, she chats, she gets about and she abides. It's the abiding I miss most.
That said, yes I also miss all the talking about books. It's not like I don't do this anyway and with a lot of other people nearly every day. One of the real pleasures of my job is the opportunity to talk about books and often with people smarter and or better educated than myself. (Hell, even the dumb questions can be fun if everybody decides to have fun with it and not everybody always does but there we are.) I miss talking about books with my friend Nancy because when she isn't being paid to talk about books or talking to an audience about books but just talking briefly with the guy, meaning me, at the information desk in the bookstore some random morning, she's just as likely to say "meh" as "marvelous!" Who am I going to tell if the lady shades a famous author or waves away a bestseller? It feels naughty. Childish word, but then so is my delight when America's Favorite Librarian, the National Treasure was maybe... a little mean? I mean, perish the thought, right?! Delightful. And don't think I didn't live to egg this sort of thing on. That said, honestly what I miss most about chatting with Nancy about books, what I most look forward to having again are her ayes, not her nays. I'm not just saying. Why? Because her endurance, that quality I most admire in my friend, is fueled by enthusiasms, old and new. She doesn't have to with me. I'm not paying the lady. She doesn't owe me any favors. I'm not making a list or putting up a chalkboard. No show. That said, liking things, reading books, loving authors, these are the things she brings with her, even on a morning walk. Can no more be helped than the color of her eyes. That's what we have in common as much as our occasional dances with Churchill's black dogs. We share an enthusiasm and a faith. Same church different pews mostly, but we are true believers. We know the secret handshakes. Light the candles (seriously, more candles who can read in this light?) Maybe all we want to do is sit home and watch Let's Make a Deal (shut up! Wayne Brady is an ENTERTAINER!) Maybe today the last thing we want to talk about is what we happen to be reading (shut up! Go read what you want. Stop asking the poor woman to tell you what to read!!! You're a grown person. Make a decision. Take a risk. Jeeeez.) But when I look into Nancy Pearl's eyes I see a comrade.
Could I stand to see more of the woman? Yes I could. Times are hard. The lady is still busy even in a virtual way (awards and such, remember?) Still, someday, hopefully some day soon Nancy Pearl will go for a walk, stop for a coffee, pick up a newspaper and maybe linger for a quick kibbitz, a little gossip, a complaint here and there. Maybe she's reading something good. Maybe not. Doesn't matter to me. I have faith. She'll be back.
Meanwhile, congratulations again, Miss Fancy. Couldn't happen to a better. See you soon.
Monday, November 15, 2021
Reading for the Plot
Dumas tells a story. His father, the great general was tasked with taking a fortified enemy position that was well defended on three sides and all but inaccessible on the fourth, as that was built atop a sheer rock wall. First the general had his armorer make crampons. Next, he warned the men he took with him up the mountain that night that any who fell to their certain deaths on the rocks below must not cry out and reveal the assault. "Three men fell; their bodies were heard bounding from rock to rock; but no cry, not a groan, not a murmur, escaped them." (Day-yam!) The survivors reached the palisades and started climbing again, but the general thought of "a better and quieter way." He took each man "by the seat of his trousers and the collar of his coat" and he threw them, one by one over the high wall and into the snow on the other side. Completely surprised to find the French in their midst, the enemy promptly surrendered.
It's a good story, no? Alexandre Dumas tells a good story. He loves a good story. He is a good story.
Obviously, I've finally started reading Dumas' My Memoirs. This is the proper book, mind, starting with Volume I, 1802 - 1821, rather than the selection of same I read some years ago. The original was published in five volumes, starting in 1847 when the author was at the height of his fame and fortune. The final volume brings him no further forward than his thirty-second year, well before his greatest novels saw print. (At the rate he wrote, had he completed his memoirs even so far as his middle age, the book would have exceeded both his Musketeers and The Count!) Like so many things Dumas started: newspapers, histories, architectural projects, farms, collaborations, revolutions, associations, love affairs, he didn't so much abandon his autobiography as get on with other things.
The need to make a selection rather than reprint all he did write was hardly indefensible. This first volume is largely Dumas' biography of his father, a man willfully forgotten by history at the time, and much maligned by his contemporaries. Volume One runs to 308 very tightly printed pages in this edition. An admirable act of filial devotion then, but it must be admitted that no father probably ever gave a son better copy. Still, Dumas never met an official document to this end that he didn't think worth preserving entire; defending his father's military service with unabridged orders and commendations, and arguing the legitimacy of his father's birth with every dusty scrap he can find. Hard to fault him as a son, but as a writer? An editor might have done him no disservice, though a reduction from five to one hardly does the author or his autobiography justice. And how many good stories were left behind?
Every English major knows the formula: story is who, what, and where and plot is how, when, and why. Simple, right? Modern theory, and a century ago the Modernists in particular, challenged this system and the underlying assumptions made about the function of narrative, the agency of the individual, the intention of the author, etc. Interestingly, I can't find much in the way of modern criticism of Dumas. His contemporaries all had their brief say, but mine can't seem to be bothered. (If one searches the Internet for "Dumas criticism and reviews," one will find articles on very fancy watches, and "reaction videos" from first time readers, uniformly young, not infrequently bored and or daunted, or conversely proud as punch for having read a big book read literally millions of times before. I mean... golly.) So what did his contemporaries have to say?
Like virtually everyone who came in direct contact with Dumas, the great critic Sainte-Beuve could be described as a friend. Didn't prevent him from accusing Dumas of introducing "industrial literature" with his "factory" of collaborators and prodigious output of popular journalism, history, and fiction. As with so much that has subsequently been written about the novelist, the critique concedes the author's genius as a storyteller, but concentrates on his profligacy and production. Dumas great friend and contemporary Victor Hugo pays moving tribute in a letter of condolence to Dumas fils, but even there is understandably shy of offering an opinion of the literary value of the work. It seems everybody loved Dumas, as most of his readers love him still, but always with a barely concealed hint of condescension. For he's a jolly good fellow, which nobody can deny -- l'ultime bonhomme -- but was he a serious writer? Was he an artist?
Reading even the very few reviews of newer translations, I am struck by the almost willful refusal to take the man seriously. Reviewing Pevear's translation of The Three Musketeers, Terrance Rafferty (from whom I took the Sainte-Beuve quotes) calls Dumas "shameless" and "joyful" -- and a genius -- but can't imagine a larger purpose in Dumas' cynicism about patronage, aristocracy, and royalty, or recognize as deliberate or important Dumas' emphasis on personal loyalty and bravery in preference to detailing a supposedly important battle. Really?
It would seem that the rather quaint notion that popularity -- real, sustained, all but universal popularity -- presupposes inferiority. Dumas' rediscovered novel, Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine was published in 2005 and sold better than 250,000 copies in France. Published in English as The Last Cavalier it was a New York Times Bestseller, as have been all the subsequent Dumas translations by Lawrence Ellsworth. Dumas has had nearly two thousand translations in fifty-four languages and many of his major novels remain in print in both French and English despite the ongoing abandonment of the classic backlist by major publishers. None of which proves his ashes worthy of The Pantheon, I suppose but it might at least give pause to the people who seem determined see Dumas as a hack.
Reading Dumas again in middle age, I feel the want of serious contemporary criticism simply because it might address not his reputation but issues in my own reading. I could stand some help. I mean, is he really only concerned with story? Are his plots so absurd? I don't see that. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “Character is plot, plot is character.” By that standard, Dumas' plots don't strike me as so absurd. True, unlike Mr. Fitzgerald, Monsieur Dumas hasn't the habit of brevity and it can seem rather artless when the reader and possibly the author seems to lose track of the protagonist for what can feel like very long stretches indeed, but can anyone really suggest that character is not the central concern of The Count of Monte Cristo or that Edmond Dantes isn't changed by his circumstances? (Novelist Julian Barnes defined the function of plot in opera as the fastest means to deliver characters to the point "where they can sing their deepest emotions. " That seems more in line with the general gist of the Romantics, don't you think?) So just how absurd are the author's absurdities? How excessive are his excesses? Are carved emerald pill-boxes and Ethiopian cowboy lassos as silly as they sound to me, or are these things intentionally rococo because Dumas has something to say about wealth, and "new money" in particular? Obviously The Count's treasure cave is also Aladdin's, but what are we to make of all this talk of The Arabian Nights? Is it all just good fun? Doesn't feel like it, frankly. Worth remembering the Scheherazade had more than one purpose in telling stories too.
I don't have the answers to these questions. I have formed a few opinions, but that can neither be helped nor of much use without some sort of critical support from my intellectual betters and so far they can't seem to be bothered. My suggestion then as we read The Count of Monte Cristo and or the multiple volumes of the D'Artagnan cycle -- as anyone reads Alexandre Dumas pere -- is of course to enjoy all the seeming absurdities of pirates and schemes and opium dreams, but maybe assume hereafter that like any major novelist of his period, Dumas had something to say about politics, class, injustice, tragedy, love, and all the rest. (I mean, there really isn't another major European writer of the period other than Dickens and Andersen whose personal history gave them a better right to criticize the society that ultimately worshiped them.) More, it is an altogether more interesting experience for me reading and rereading Dumas as a serious writer and not just as the man who tells The Count and The Musketeers. If I assume he meant to say something it doesn't feel at all absurd to notice that he did. Put it another way, I feel I know at least a little now of the who, what, and where of Dumas, and now I'm more interested in the how, when, and why -- of Dumas.
Tuesday, November 2, 2021
Dear Dr. Imaginary
Dear Doctor C___,
Your call is important to me. No, honestly, it is. As I mentioned in my original message through the website days ago, this isn't in reference to anything life-threatening, at least not so far as I know. But then how would I know, come to that? Obviously I'm not the doctor. Let's assume not-life-threatening. No, I just had a question and you were to get back to me, which you did, again via messaging, suggesting we arrange a telephone consultation. Now that sounds simple enough. Over the past long while we've actually talked on the phone more than once. I confess that when you actually called me unprompted once, just to follow up, I was terribly surprised. I mean, there you were, on the phone, big as life and calling me without so much as a half hour wait, three previous booking agents, virtual chats with third parties, physicians' assistant interventions, nothing. I didn't want to say so at the time, but I don't mind telling you I nearly cried when you did that, that one time. It was like getting a call from the Queen for my hundredth birthday! It was special. I was actually quite touched. No lie.
Today's been a bit different, more usual if I'm being honest. You suggest a phone call. I try to arrange one via messaging and the automated phone system etc., and well... here we are. I've got a message pending on the website, two failed return calls from a robot, and I am writing an imaginary letter you will never read because it may be "up to 48 hours" before I can expect a response. I have tried doing this sort of thing through the website before. An enquiry, followed by sincere response, followed by... very long pauses. I am always tempted to just start writing something lengthy and more personal just to fill the time. I don't know if you know this, but even were I to break this sort of thing up into entries that would not exceed the designated length, at some point the system simply won't allow for it. Just today I started to write about the green beans I rather thought we might have tonight with the buttermilk fried chicken the beloved husband is planning. I didn't feel I could afford to actually get up from my computer and go snap beans though because then I would be dependent on just the phone app again and it refuses to retain my password, despite insisting that the facial recognition software has already let me into the site. You know what I'm talking about. Happens all the time. Then I panic and can't remember my password and then the whole disastrous undertaking just cascades into tears and curses -- mostly curses. Today when the robot called me back it would not respond to "Hello?' and just insisted I "press any button," but I didn't have a keypad displayed when I answered the call and when I tried to get to it I hung up the call. Disaster! So now I'm sitting downstairs in my office, getting a bit chilly because I didn't wear my robe and still afraid that if I go back up I will miss something. A call was it? Who remembers now frankly, but the anxiety lingers on, my dear doctor and we both know what that does for a man with heart problems, but what to do?
What was I talking about? Oh, yes. Green beans. Now I know it's mad to even think of typing away about green beans while waiting for the doctor, but it may pass the time. And I should think it looks even worse typing away about green beans and buttermilk chicken wings on the actual site of one's Health Care Provider. I'm not a complete fool. I would probably have deleted everything about the beans -- and certainly any mention of fried chicken -- before I hit "send" but then it wouldn't have mattered anyway, or even have happened because of the website's restrictions on messaging length, so I might as well just natter away here, talking to my imaginary doctor as it were, as doing so has the undeniable advantage of not requiring so much as a wink from you.
At least here at my own desk, even if it's a bit cold and my day is wasting away to nothing, I am not actually on hold listening to smooth jazz or to a recorded robot voice, or pressing "1" sixteen times to avoid inadvertently switching into Serbo-Croatian or requesting a Pap smear or something.
Which reminds me how genuinely amusing it is on the website when attempting to book an "e chat" that among my eight options -- not one less, not one more -- besides "I am dying of COVID19" one of the only other available listings is "heel pain." What CAN that mean?! I keep meaning to ask you when and if we ever get the chance again. Why specifically "heel pain"? Is that a major concern? Is it indicative of some larger issue? Is it better to ask in this subtle way because heel pain is actually the first sign of myocardial infarction or Dengue fever or something and you don't want people to panic before they've actually taken the time to virtually book what will probably only be a "televisit"? Is it actually already too late by the time there's heel pain? Is it more common for instance than toe pain? (I'd have put money on arches.)
Medical science is a genuine mystery to me, I must say. I've always assumed there was a fair amount of arithmetic and that was enough to put me right off the idea. Memorization too. And blood of course, though I'm not terribly squeamish. The beloved husband loves medical shows which I do not but even he has to turn away sometimes from some of the incredibly realistic looking and surprisingly elaborate surgical interventions. Now I think of it, I've never seen anyone rushed into the surgery complaint of "heel pain," Not once. I may have exaggerated the potential importance of that, but then the options really are quite limited and there isn't even an "other" option any more. Did you know that? There is not. The list is basically "I am dying of COVOD19," pregnancy, acne, smoking cessation, (...), (...), and heel pain. Pick your poison, people! It is remarkable how you've managed to narrow that list down. Even still, all of that must be awfully complicated to study and treat. Heel pain alone must be volumes. I would not be up to anything like. I can't even get beans snapped and the morning is long gone and the afternoons are so short now it's autumn.
I do hope you had a chance to get out and see at least a little of the glorious Fall color on those two sunny days we had between the more usual Northwest weather systems. I was actually working during most of the daylight hours, so it was more a glimpse for me than a leisurely country drive or anything like that. Have I ever mentioned that I'm from back east? Only thing I really miss, the changing leaves. I mean I miss a lot of things, now I'm in my fifties. I miss bookstores, lots of them in one place if you're even old enough to remember such a thing or would much care. (When would you have had the time?!) I still miss smoking, believe it or not. Smoking was cool. I know it's horrifying, but it genuinely was. You'll just have to trust me on that. I miss actual receptionists. I know that sounds odd, but consider the context of me writing and it shouldn't be too hard to justify saying so. This will be one of those old-man-on-a-park-bench moments, but I genuinely do miss receptionists. They all had names like Molly and they were terribly harassed women mostly, with beautiful manners and very restrained voices and they just made the world go 'round whether it was a GP's office or a hair salon or the lobby of some intimidating building downtown to which no one willingly went even back then. If one wanted anything actually done in this world one was far better off if a friend could be made of the receptionist. Later they even let a few of the gays do this sort of thing. Was always glad to see a gay receptionist. At a certain point though the receptionist went the way of the telephone operator. I remember when every receptionist was transformed overnight into an office manager. Now there may well have been office managers before then, in addition to the receptionists, but then there was just the one title and the one poor woman doing God knows how many jobs and it was definitely not the same anymore. Office managers were far less likely to be made friends of. There was a change of atmosphere, a very real chill. Who wants to speak to a manager these days? Never a good thing.
Not to moan, but what I wouldn't give for even an office manager now! There really isn't anyone in a doctor's office for whom one might drop off a cookie-plate at Christmas time nowadays, or even flowers, is there? Even that phlebotomist I particularly admired in your clinic, I think he would be a bit taken aback were I to just show up with a box of unopened candy. The nicest pharmacist the world, and I frankly don't remember the last one that made eye-contact, would go quite wide-eyed at some anonymous card-holder popping up in line with a numbered chit and a bouquet, and quite right too.
I'll be frank, during my longish illness earlier this year, when I seemed to be in touch with nearly everybody in the organization except you, I encountered quite a few very nice people, and not just nurses either. There were Physicians' Assistants as well. (No luck with gastroenterologists, you'll remember, but one very nice surgeon who nearly redeemed that much villianized category of MDs for a moment there!) That said, the ones for whom I honestly felt the most genuine sympathy were those poor benighted souls on the telephone who actually had to book appointments once the valued member of ____ had actually negotiate his or her or their way through the Sleeping Beauty thorn bushes of the automated system. Finally get to the twenty-seventh person in the holding pattern and surprise! That person is unhappy, just like the previous twenty-six. It's hard to have any sympathy at all with the demonic capitalist assholes who designed the business model or the pocketed politicians who maintain this plantation and call it "health care." Even harder almost to feel anything but burning hatred for the programmers who designed the public interface to run so very smoothly and attractively unless and until one needs it to, you know, DO something. Those motherfuckers all need to get ass cancer. Seriously. I know that's an outlandishly cruel thought, and why them and not the investors who raped the public hospitals and privatized charitable institutions and monetized human suffering on a scale undreamt of by the Popes, but remember why I am here just now, pretending to write to my doctor who's face I frankly can not remember for the life of me. The life of ME. (Sorry, again for the cursing, and the whole "ass cancer" business. Remember, I'm not a doctor. I should have said, "heel pain.")
Well, it's already dark out. I've checked again -- actually I've been checking every five minutes until I finally had to make myself stop and I don't think I'm getting any messages or responses or acknowledgment today, so I'd better just wrap this up and see if there's still any point in snappin' them beans. The husband's been home for awhile now, and here I sit. Better just shut this down for now. I'm sure we'll talk again soon, at least here.
And it really was a pleasure. It really was. Don't remember the last time. I hope you take care and I'll wait to hear what you have to say about that question I asked. I'll be interested to know. I really will. I'd tell you to say hello to the receptionist for me if you still had one. In the absence of, tell anyone about the place at this hour that I am thinking about them and genuinely wishing them well. Can't be easy for any of us, what with all the heels.
With all due respect and genuine affection,
Member# _______, date of birth __/__/__
Monday, November 1, 2021
We've all seen them on those sad, sagging shelves at the very back of every thrift store: the disreputable, stoutly bound, untouched volumes of The Reader's Digest Condensed Books. My Grandmother was an enthusiast. Her generation of country women came to The Reader's Digest Magazine as to safe water in the desert. If there was a public library in her childhood, it was miles away and not always welcoming to folks from outside of town. Before marriage, her mother taught briefly in a one room schoolhouse, so Grandma Craft grew up with books beyond The Holy Bible, but books were expensive and few on a farm at the turn of the last century. Only so many times to reread John Bunyon and Wesley's sermons. Imagine the urbanity of reading articles taken from all the great magazines and newspapers of the day, condensed and edited for a conservative, largely rural population unused to subscriptions and news-stands. More, the monthly brought short, serviceable versions of new books and the occasional classic. In 1950 came the bound, then quarterly volumes of actual (sometimes much amended) books, each containing four, five, or even six new novels, autobiographies, histories! My Grandma read them end to end.
A quick review of titles from the fifties and sixties tells a fairly predictable tale of long-forgotten popular fiction of the day -- and rest to the forgotten shades of Ernest K. Gann, Victoria Holt, and Taylor Caldwell -- but there are surprising selections as well such as Lampedusa's The Leopard and To Kill a Mockingbird in the same volume (summer, 1960.) By my own rise to adult readership in the mid 1970s there were the expected Micheners and Crichtons and Catherine Cooksons -- one of Grandma's favorites -- and curiously fewer titles than in previous decades likely to survive. Slimmer pickings no doubt among the bestsellers of the day when it came to the essential modesty of language and subject matter. (How does one subtract the sex from Updike or Erica Jong?) By the 1980s the whole enterprise seems to have declined into an extension of the overtly niche Christian market with only an occasional Ken Follett or a Nelson DeMille here and there to suggest so much as hint of contemporary popularity. The Reader's Digest Condensed Books have never had much of a resale market. By the 1990s any reader under eighty and outside of an Ohio Church of Christ would probably be stumped by all of the names in the table of contents.
Whoever hit upon that word "condensed" was something of a genius, though. Beyond the evocation of sweetened condensed milk; fudge, cookies, and cakes, there is the still reliable example of the farmer's almanac and the church album, the scholarly abstract and 18th century weekly reviews. Americans love concentrates and headlines, Tang, tablets, Tik Toks and soundbites. Just the highlights. Bullet-points, please. That other word "abridged," hasn't the same snappy associations. To abridge hints at interventions, the denial of rights, librarian's scissors.
The blessed Helene Hanff described an abridged edition of Pepys as "having the schoolroom smell of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare." Good line, though not entirely fair to Charles and Mary Lamb as they were after all writing for children, not brevity. And so it is with modern abridgement for most of us; first encountered unaware in childhood, not much troubled by it thereafter. It would seem abridgement has largely had it's day, though a case could be made that adaptation to other media now serves something of the same purpose. The old joke was, "I'll wait for the movie." Now it could be an interactive video game. Ironically, it could also be an epic television adaptation that will take years longer to produce and to watch than the time required to read any of the original books. (And if you really want a cold, sharp shock of great art reduced to a punchline, try any of the classics reimagined as board books, those familiar babies' toys in stiff cardboard and bright colors. It was a vogue there for a minute. Somehow I feel safe in assuming Pride and Prejudice in twenty words or less is meant to amuse mother, and not to actually set baby on the path to Pemberly. Well, we were not amused.) Yet abridgement persists.
Pick up any number of otherwise perfectly respectable looking paperbacks from among the classics of western literature and beware of the often very small print which may mention, almost in passing as it were that the book in your hand is not in fact Wuthering Heights as Bronte wrote it, nor is that Boswell's Life of Johnson, but an abridgement. Old or new, who knows who decided to do this pruning? The editor is not always acknowledged. Worse in every way was the edition of Hazlett's essays issued by the venerable Oxford University Press a few years back. The academic in charge took it upon himself to not just select but to actually abbreviate the author's most famous essays, including The Fight, one of the most celebrated short works in the English language. Too... what? Wordy? Evidently modern readers prefer ellipses to perfectly measured prose. (!)
Only in middle age did I realize that many old friends as remembered from childhood, including The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, and even Stevenson's Treasure Island were not cockerels but capons when I read them first. As a child of ten or twelve, I don't know that reading these books in that way did me a bit of harm, though it's just as true that I was spared nothing but another happy hour or two in the company of d'Artagnan and Long John and that denial I have come to resent.
Dr. Thomas Bowdler and his sister Henrietta Maria spent a busy few years between them literally kicking the shit out of Shakespeare. Their Family Shakespeare, cleaned out all the sex, filth, and joy from all thirty six plays. It was published in 1818. (It seems poor Ophelia for instance may have simply slipped in the bath.) Theirs proved an enormously popular edition and for a sadly long time. Before his not untimely death, the doctor also took his scissors to that unsightly long work by Edward Gibbon, making The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire finally fit reading for Anglican virgins. His most lasting contribution to literature and the language was the word "bowdlerize," meaning to diminish by excision and adulteration, which word entered the dictionary not a dozen years after the doctor's death, so... people knew, even then. To bowdlerize is bad.
So with much that's been done to Dumas in translation and abridgement. No one from Bowdler to The Reader's Digest ever did the one thing for which every kid once wished and kept just the fun stuff like cussing, fighting, blood, and sex. Inherent in the undertaking of abridgement are I should think two assumptions, the first being that many works are just too damned long. With this I can disagree only case by case. I've certainly found myself more than once lost in a Hardy landscape with no clear way out. Still, I knew where I was headed when I went in so that was certainly no fault of the man from Wessex. The second assumption, as to what might best come out in abbreviation, well there's the trouble. The impetus is always antagonistic not just to the author's perceived excesses but also to the laxity of the author's morality. The person who abridges is concerned not just with the reader's comfort but also overly careful of the reader's character. Not to give anything away, but in the abridgement, d'Artagnen was made a much better boy. Other than Sunday School teachers, who wants that in a musketeer?! Nobody wants that, that's who. Pardieu! This doesn't just simplify the narrative, it oversimplifies the man. For The Count of Monte Cristo, it is much worse.
Edmond Dantes is an admirable lad, but the Count of Monte Cristo? In a full translation and unabridged edition the Count of Monte Cristo is one scary bastard. Until I read Robin Buss' translation I had no idea. Seriously. Never mind the hashish, the statuesque Amazon, the slaves. Honey, the Count is compared more than once to a vampire and smiles at a public execution so gruesome it nearly makes his friend faint. And the way he talks! If one didn't know better the modern reader might well describe him as a psychopath and or a lecturer at the Hoover Institute. It's terrifying, and meant to be. (His actual character I will leave to the patient reader to discover.) It is only in an unrestrained Dumas that the scope of the Count's vengeance, and the ruthlessness of his means give the ending the weight and meaning it deserves. This is not just a good man punishing bad people, friends. This is an admittedly long and very detailed examination of moral consequences. It's only abridged that this is in any way a story appropriate to children. As I think I've said, that's fine, but it's not Dumas.
Of all the great Romantics, of all the 19th century French novelists, Dumas suffers most from his popularity. I am convinced now that this in large part, at least in English has everything to do with fairly ruthless, consistent, and prudish abridgement. Yes, he told marvelous stories. He was also a serious writer. You won't know that unless you read him straight. No offense to the memory of Grandma, but sometimes half a loaf simply isn't better than none.